Brighton Year-Round 2019
Sean O’Connor directs this updated revival of The Entertainer, lit by Tim Mitchell, with Chris James as sound designer. Greg Arrowsmith is Musical Supervisor, movement director Emily Holt. Lizzie Frankl is props manager.
It’s a brave, bold move to update John Osborne’s The Entertainer from its 1956 Suez setting, then only months old, to 1982 and the Falklands War.
A clever, obvious thing to do in fact. Many of us remember that conflict, though instead of the shame Suez inflicted, it inaugurated a fresh fantasy of British prestige and a personal triumph for Margaret Thatcher, who as it were appears here; though you’ll have to find out how for yourselves.
Perhaps that’s why there’s a sense of tragic weight being removed from this production – of the last stand of a third-rate vaudevillian devastating in self-knowledge; and insufferable at home where his father Billy, a far greater vaudevillian, staggers on as a dying rebuke. At its greatest pitch Archie Rice is an unpleasant, even vicious man defiant, determined to go down snarling. And denied perhaps even that. Archie Rice’s existential howl sixty years on can be devastating.
There’s a great deal of new material added, displacing Osborne’s songs and patter. They’re replaced with 1970s pop standards, jokes stripped back to skeletal essentials – along with a necessary trimming-back of dialogue – Osborne’s prone to rhodomontade.
So the ones we remember are there; others re-spliced and re-spiced to a near Bernard Manning level of explicitness. And both Archie and his father Billy at one moment use the F-word in front of daughter Jean, which I’m not wholly convinced of. The late appearance of two characters, Jean’s ex-fiancé Graham and Archie’s brother Bill, have been rightly dropped as in most productions.
Scene changes and other intervals are punctuated now by Sun banners with explicit anti-Argentine headlines, stills of the troops and a recurring montage of the war’s progress. It’s effective as storyboarding through scene-changes and superbly done; though it slightly vitiates the pressured intensity of the Rices’ world.
Shane Richie in the title part of broken-down vaudevillian Archie Rice is consummate, within these limits. He alternates a sotto voce patter, a quickfire repartee and a way of muttering throw-aways as well as a syncopated off-kilter timing on his song entries, not least when singing his final number, now ‘Those were the Days’. Richie’s falterings though become oddly broken mutterings rather than broken-down. There isn’t quite the rage and snarl of some notable interpreters, like Olivier and Branagh.
There’s a huge amount to admire though in this thoroughly updated version, not least Richie who really does get the third-rate in the spotlight, though his casual way with footlights seems a tad excessive. Though he isn’t quite the terror at home he might be, he’s loud, hectoring, interrupting. There’s no doubting his boorishness though he’s not quite brutish. Richie does evoke Osborne’s portrayal of a man who can’t switch off: ‘We’re characters out of something that nobody believes in’ as Archie tells them all.
Sean O’Connor directs this updated revival of The Entertainer, lit by Tim Mitchell, an intricate affair involving spotlight in tenebrous circumstances in the home as well as stage. Chris James as sound designer has opted for some mic-ing up and a recorded band with Greg Arrowsmith as Musical Supervisor. Movement Director is Emily Holt. Lizzie Frankl is props manager and the unattributed set is striking for replicating more a 1950s interior with fading ochre-patterned wallpaper, a late 1950s radio stage left and behind that and a chair an upright piano. Stage right there’s a table and a couple of chairs. It’s an intricate study in seedy post-war lodgings, far more 1956 than 1982. Elsewhere a safety curtain and spotlight serves as stage, and occasionally there’s a lift-off to reveal empty space, for a funeral and at the end.
The cast standout is Sara Crowe, the woman Archie took up with and the mother of their sons: Mick, a sergeant with the Paras fighting and as we find out, captured. And Frank, a drip off the old block who in the original play had done six months jail for refusing national service, his defining quality which here finds no replacement. His part’s cut down a little, though Christopher Bonwell makes a brave face as someone limping behind his father.
Crowe’s both vulnerable but also reveals fissures of resentment at Jean for being so sorted, perhaps Archie’s favourite. And for throwing away her life in London. Crowe builds up the terraced drunken layers to outburst with convincing gin tears that bring forth real ones. She’s commanding as someone out of her depth who touches bottom and then her confidence. And her wild grief at the hungry Billy cutting into a cake saved for Mick’s homecoming is palpable. In post-rationed Britain, a cake is an event, a detail lost here.
Diana Vickers has a thankless task as daughter of Archie’s first wife who left as soon as she discovered Archie and Phoebe in bed. Vickers’ letting rip a northern accent begs questions of which seaside resort this work’s located in. Vickers manages to convey a generosity through the preoccupied Jean’s judgementalism. There’s warmth but her mother’s ‘person of principle… who felt everything very deeply’ describes Jean too. It’s brought out in Vickers’ resort to convincing us of Jean’s hectoring righteousness, starting with a peace march.
Pip Donaghy as Archie’s once-great father Billy Rice is convincing even when so many of his songs are shorn. His vicious resort to racism and loud complaints are matched by his – and Richie and Bonwell’s – resort to the piano for song and dance; which irritates the proverbial out of the Poles upstairs who crash noises in protest. Donaghy’s wistful recall of energy crossed with foul-mouthed decay is a small sovereign delight.
Richie’s singing and sleaze heads a re-drawing of a masterpiece to fit into a time we can identify with. Too much shadow perhaps has gone with it, in this relentless version. Brilliant as the pacing is when the family talk at once in this cut production of just under two hours, it makes the work seem actually longer. And though it’s expertly, rightly edited, the effect of this velocity is to highlight Osborne’s joins, making the play seem as baggy as Look Back in Anger. The Entertainer should transcend that. Nevertheless it’s eminently worth attempting. There won’t be a better repointing of any Osborne work. The flaws and flourishes are his. There’s a vein of greatness though, waiting to be mined.